Distinguished alike in the practice of the law and in the sphere of public service, the Hon. James Hepburn Parsons was for many years an important and familiar figure in Rhode Island life. He brought to his professional duties unusual talents. He devoted himself to his work with rare fidelity, and in seeking his own career he worked for the advancement of State and Nation.
Mr. Parsons was born at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on May 30, 1832, a son of the Hon. Anson V. and Mary (Hepburn) Parsons. He received his preliminary education in the schools of Philadelphia, and following graduation from the high school he entered Brown University, at Providence, where he took his degree in 1854. Having decided meanwhile upon a legal career, he commenced the study of the law under the direction of his father. He was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia, but soon afterwards came to Providence where he purposed to take up practice. For a time he was employed in the offices of the Hon. Thomas A. Jenckes, but soon began his independent career, winning immediate success. He possessed a wide knowledge of legal theory and procedure. His memory for facts was extraordinary. His powers of observation and desire for information were equally remarkable, and his ability to commit to memory most astonishing. Mr. Parsons made full use of the many gifts which were his. He prepared his briefs with meticulous care, and in the courts of the State he demonstrated that he was a formidable antagonist. He was employed in cases of great importance, more especially in the field of equity practice to which he largely devoted himself, and his diligence on behalf of his clients resulted in many notable victories for the causes which he supported.
In public life Mr. Parsons was also active. At one time he was a member of the Providence City Court of Magistrates. In 1862 he served with distinction as a member of the General Assembly of the State, while in 1866 President Johnson appointed him United States District Attorney for Rhode Island. In this office he discharged its difficult duties with the greatest efficiency and fidelity, considering service in the public interest no less worthy of his best attention than his own affairs. Whether in office or in private practice he was faithful always to the highest ideals of his profession and to the best interests of the people whom he so ably served.
Mr. Parsons was a man of the greatest personal charm. He was a thorough scholar, and could discourse brilliantly on almost any phase of art and letters. He was extremely fond of the best literature, of the fine arts and of beauty wherever it might be found. His imagination was particularly vivid, and lent a rare charm to his words, both spoken and written. Mr. Parsons was affiliated fraternally with the Free and Accepted Masons, being a member of St. John’s Lodge, and of the Commandery of the Knights Templar. He was interested in every civic movement of value, and his contributions to benevolent enterprises were both frequent and generous.
In October, 1859, James Hepburn Parsons married Ellen Richmond, eldest daughter of George M. and Anna (Eddy) Richmond, the former a prominent business leader and manufacturer of Providence. Anna (Eddy) Richmond, his wife, was a daughter of the Hon. Samuel Eddy, jurist and statesman, who was at one time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, and at another, a member of the United States Congress.
Mr. and Mrs. Parsons became the parents of two children, as follows:
- George Richmond, born on April 10, 1861, in Providence, Rhode Island, a graduate of the Providence schools, and of Phillips-Exeter Academy in 1882. He also attended Harvard College, but in his junior year was obliged to return to his family. At the twenty-fifth reunion of his class, Harvard University gave him the degree of Bachelor of Arts. For a time he was head of the Richmond Manufacturing Company, and later became president of the Crompton Company. He married, on October 23, 1889, Clara Turner Bray ton, daughter of Lodowick Brayton, first president of the Union Railway Company; and they became the parents of one daughter, Laura Turner, who married Reune Martin, Jr., of New York.
- Mary Hepburn, born on April 18, 1862, now residing in the old family home at Providence, and active in various phases of the city’s life.
Mr. Parsons’ death occurred on June 16, 1876, cutting short a brilliant career at the full height of his mature powers. Kind and generous to those about him, he won for himself a secure place in the hearts of all those who knew him, and his passing was a source of deep regret to the people of this city and State.
Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.